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Studying the violent impact of guns is long overdue

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Under new legislation passed by the House of Representatives, and expected to quickly pass the Senate and be signed into law by President Trump, $25 million has been allocated for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study gun violence.

This is the first time in 20 years that the feds are funding gun violence research — and it comes at the right time as, according to the CDC, nearly 40,000 people died of gun-related injuries in 2017 alone.

The research allocation is a direct result of Congress clarifying that the so-called Dickey Amendment, which in 1996 barred the CDC from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control,” does not extend to a ban on research. As a physician, I applaud the clarification and look forward to the new study. 

Gun control and gun violence are too often seen as a political rather than a medical or public health issue. Arguments abound over whether violence stems from guns or a violent culture with firearms as the tool. London, with a strict ban on weapons, still reported its highest rate of murders in a decade in 2018, in part because of a steady rise in knife violence. On the other hand, Israel, a country where military guns abound, has lower personal gun ownership and stricter gun laws, and a much lower rate of gun violence than in the U.S. 

It has always disturbed me that here in the U.S., where there is no assault rifle ban and where copycat shootings fueled by internet and social-media anger abound, the Centers for Disease Control did not have the funding to study the phenomena and make recommendations over which is the chicken and which is the egg, in terms of gun violence.

In other words, is the gun merely the tool, or is it the cause of mass shootings? Is it a deterrent if a gun owner can protect his or her homestead, especially in a rural area, or is the temptation too high to use the gun if you have it in your possession? If you are a criminal with an intent to commit violence, will you obtain your weapon illegally if you can’t buy it in a store? 

One thing is clear: Gun violence is on the increase in the United States. And now, finally, the CDC and the NIH have the funding to study the problem and, at the same time, make recommendations on what to do about it.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives us the right to bear arms but not the inherent right for those arms to include a military-style, multi-round rifle. What would an assault rifle ban mean for gun violence?

New York City provides a clue where a strict gun-control policy appears to translate into a murder rate (committed with guns), which is much lower than in other urban areas. Jeff Asher, a crime analyst and co-founder of AH Datalytics, has determined that 54 percent of murders in New York involve guns. In contrast, the average is 80 percent for other large cities in America.  

One of the reasons the federal government is in the best position to study the problem is that it can work with state and local governments to determine which guns used in crimes are acquired legally versus illegally, along with which perpetrator has a history of violence or violent ideation and which doesn’t.

The goal, of course, will be to predict whether tighter gun-control laws (as well as better mental health screening for potential gun owners) will directly impact the violence and murder rate the way it has in Israel.

Let the research begin. Let the $25 million in funding be only the beginning. I think the biggest challenge won’t be to confirm an association, such as increased access to firearms leading to a higher rate of gun violence; this may be accomplished with observational population studies alone.

Instead, it will be tougher to prove that a specific crime only happened because of access to a certain weapon. This proof would require deliberately studying the impact of putting a gun into an unstable person’s hands — and, of course, it would be unethical to do so.

Marc Siegel M.D. is a professor of medicine and medical director at Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News Medical Correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @drmarcsiegel.

Tags Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Donald Trump Firearms Gun control Gun politics Mass shooting Overview of gun laws by nation

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